COOL CLASSES: “Superlab”

This signature biology course, which celebrated its 50th anniversary last year, brings together professors from differing research areas to team teach a stand-alone laboratory course dedicated to solving real-world problems.

Class name: “Laboratory in Biochemistry and Molecular Biology” better known as “Superlab”

Taught by: This semester it was taught by Associate Professor of Biology Rachel Hoang and Assistant Professor of Biology Jonathan Wilson in the first quarter and Professor of Biology Phil Meneely and Visiting Assistant Professor of Biology Hilary DeBardeleben in the second quarter.


Here’s what the team had to say about the class:

Biology 300 Superlab has been a signature course for the department for more than 50 years—we celebrated its 50th anniversary last year. It involves two faculty members each quarter working with juniors and seniors on an investigative, open-ended laboratory project. So students work with four different faculty teams over the course of the year’s four quarters. The two faculty members develop the projects for the quarter together.

For the past several years, we have taken advantage of our proximity to Penn and Thomas Jefferson University and recruited a research post-doctoral fellow to co-teach some of the quarters with us—we have had three such teams this year, including the current team which features Penn post-doc Hilary DeBardeleben. The advantage for the post-doctoral fellow is that they can get practical teaching experience with the guidance of an experienced Haverford faculty member—both are in the lab every afternoon with students. The post-docs usually bring some part of their current research projects at Penn or Jefferson, so they can have undergraduate students working on something that they might be able to follow up in their own work, and they can see how their research might be done at a liberal arts college. Several of our former teaching fellows are now tenure-track faculty members at other colleges or universities, with courses and research projects that they developed here. The advantage for our students is that they are introduced to a research topic that is different from something that any Haverford professor works on and they get contacts with larger labs nearby, which has helped for internships, possible employment, and general exposure to the broader world of biological research.

This quarter, the students are examining the genetic and neurological basis of several behaviors in the nematode C. elegans, which Hilary is researching at Penn.  C. elegans is a very widely used model organism for many fields of biology—Phil has been working with worms for more than 40 years—and, despite its relatively simple neural circuitry, it exhibits a number of complex behaviors.  These include well-known behaviors, such as feeding, movement, and egg-laying, and some less familiar ones, such as a sleep-like state called lethargus, habituation to stimuli, and chemical attraction and avoidance. The students have been asked to explore the research literature for other behaviors that might lend themselves to a genetic and neurological analysis, and to propose a plan to study such behaviors.

The previous quarter, from January until March, Superlab students investigated the bacterial microbiome found on indoor plant leaves around campus with Rachel and Jonathan as part of his multi-year project to identify and map biodiversity on Haverford’s campus. Plant leaves host numerous bacterial species—a typical outdoor leaf hosts nearly as many species of bacteria as the human gut—but little is known about the types of organisms that are resident on indoor plants, including whether these microbial communities contain toxic or pathogenic members. Students worked in teams to develop individual and group hypotheses about how indoor plant microbiomes might be influenced by a variety of factors such as host species or location. They surveyed a broad range of leaves from indoor environments across campus, including in the KINSC Rotunda (pictured above), plants in student housing, and even plants in the President’s office in Founders Hall, using microbiological and molecular techniques. In the course of their projects the students devised and refined techniques for culturing the bacteria and troubleshooting the techniques used to isolate and sequence bacterial DNA. As a class, we discovered that the diversity and abundance of bacteria on indoor plant leaves is 1/100th or 1/1000th as much as that found on outdoor plants but still consists of a complex mixture of organisms that can affect plant and animal health.




See what other courses the Biology Department is offering this semester.

Cool Classes is a series that highlights interesting, unusual, and unique courses that enrich the Haverford experience.